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Obama Awards 2015 National Arts And Humanities Medals

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

They take their piece of this big, bold, diverse energetic country, they reshape it, and they share it with us. That's how President Obama described the newest recipients of the National Medals of the Arts and Humanities. They were celebrated at the White House today. The 24 honorees ranged from Mel Brooks to Wynton Marsalis. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The formal East Room of the White House held what the president called a rowdy crowd, filled with the friends and families of the artists and writers being celebrated. The less-than-somber mood may in large part have been due to the presence of Mel Brooks, the actor and director known for comedies like this classic, "Blazing Saddles."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLAZING SADDLES")

FRANKIE LAINE: (Singing) He rode a blazing saddle. He wore a shining star. His...

NAYLOR: The president noted Brooks once issued instructions to his writers on the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Write anything you want because we'll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie.

(LAUGHTER)

NAYLOR: Among the honorees and seated directly in front of Obama was Fresh Air host Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We have an impressive crew with us here today. We've got Terry Gross and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed.

(LAUGHTER)

NAYLOR: The president said Gross was being honored for her artful probing of the human experience. In fact, Gross has interviewed 12 of the recipients, including the actress and singer Audra McDonald. Here she is singing an Irving Berlin song, "Supper Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPPER TIME")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Supper time - I should set the table 'cause it's supper time.

NAYLOR: Other musicians honored today included composer Philip Glass, Motown impresario Berry Gordy, and Tex-Mex accordionist Santiago Jimenez. Writers included Ron Chernow, poet Louise Gluck and author Sandra Cisneros, reading here from her book "The House On Mango Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDRA CISNEROS: (Reading) At school, they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish, my name is made out of a softer something - like silver.

NAYLOR: Not all of the honorees were able to make the ceremony. Among those absent were musician Wynton Marsalis, and, as Obama noted, actor Morgan Freeman...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: ...Who undoubtedly is off playing a black president again.

NAYLOR: Not all of those honored today were actors or writers. Chef Jose Andres received the Humanities Medal for, as the citation put it, cultivating our palates and shaping our culture. The president said he and the first lady have tried to promote the arts and humanities during their time in the White House, saying they are reflective of the national soul. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.